The Louisiana Actors & Film Industry Expo

Annual conference is a community- and industry-building event for filmmakers and actors alike

Story by Shanda Quintal Guest Columnist

Last year, over 150 projects filmed in state, generating $1.5 billion in local spend, according to the Louisiana Economic Development Office of Entertainment. But in 1992, 11 projects were filmed in Louisiana. And in 2002, there were only 10. By 2004, the year after the tax incentives were enacted, there were 23 film and TV projects shot in state, according to the Louisiana Film Museum, which catalogues projects shot in Louisiana.

In 2005, Katrina hit and the levees broke, and the films, which had just started to come, surprisingly continued to come anyway—they just moved a little bit north to Shreveport. New Orleans had been a prime location to shoot for a variety of reasons, and because of the tax incentives, production companies were still drawn to Louisiana, but safe, dry Shreveport was now the location of choice. So in 2005, there was a very respectable 31 film and TV projects filmed in Louisiana. And the numbers have continued to climb at an astonishing rate, especially since production has returned to New Orleans, and continues to flourish in places like Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette.

Casting directors Meagan Lewis, Hank Langlois, Lisa Marie Dupree, and talent agent Jorge Elizondo at the 2011 event.

A large part of the attraction to Louisiana is our creative filmmaking community. And by community, I mean a strong, supportive group of folks who share a common interest, but who also have created a strong support system for each other. We carpool to auditions, we take collections for those of us who have stumbled upon hard times, we pay our respects when those among us have passed on, and we celebrate our marriages and the births of our babies.Because of the ease of social networking sites, but mainly because we really want to know how we are all doing, we keep up with one another. We work on one another’s projects and we attend each other’s screenings or plays. We are a community in a true sense.

I started the Louisiana Actors & Film Industry Expo (formerly the Louisiana Actors Expo) as a way to connect with other actors in New Orleans, my hometown. After my divorce, I moved back home with my two- and five-year-old little boys in 2007. Within a year, I knew that if I didn’t have a conversation that was not about preschool, Nemo or Power Rangers relatively soon, I was going to crack. I desperately needed to find my tribe, but I had no idea how to connect with them.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was filming when I moved here in 2007, but I didn’t really believe that there was a real Louisiana film industry. I was out of the loop, really, from mommy duties. I figured everyone, including most of the PAs, had come from L.A. I hit the Internet just to satisfy my curiosity, and lo and behold, I discovered a group of actors that met once a month.

In passing conversation, I mentioned to an old friend of mine, Sallie Ann Glassman (a voodoo priestess, who is a vegetarian and practices non-cruelty, in case you were wondering), that I wanted to find a space to have actors meet weekly to discuss and learn about the film industry. But I also needed it to be big enough for us to work out our acting muscles, and I needed this space to be completely free. The sweetheart that she is, she offered her temple to me. She said, “Just draw the curtains.” Well, hey, this is New Orleans. I don’t practice voodoo, in fact, I’d never been in her temple, so I didn’t know what I would be drawing the curtains in front of, but I needed a free space and she was offering one.

It took me a couple of months to get it together and make it to one of the monthly actors meetings, and when I did, I showed up with terribly simple flyers that I had made at home with Word. I called our Sunday meetings “The Actors Co-Op” because I wanted us all to have some input in what we were doing. The next Sunday, I had a few actors show up. A couple more showed up the next Sunday. In less than six weeks, Otter, the owner of the Backyard Ballroom Theatre, offered her theater for us to meet. Within two months, agents and acting coaches were calling to ask me if they could come speak with the actors.

One of the agents, Liz Atherton of TAG Talent, suggested I host a day of Q&As and invite the entire Louisiana film industry to participate. It sounds so simple when I type it, but I didn’t know any of them well—in fact, some of them I didn’t even know at all—so the challenge before me was gargantuan. But with Liz’s help, we made it happen. Casting directors, agents, studio executives, entertainment attorneys and WGA writers all came together to raise the bar for actors in particular, but actually for the Louisiana film industry as a whole. That was the birth of the Louisiana Actors & Film Industry Expo, which is now going into its fourth year.

Every year, it grows. The first year, there were about 150 attendees and participants. Last year, there were about 500, and this year, we have close to 1,000 aspiring and experienced film industry professionals participating. And they come from all over, not just from various parts of Louisiana. They come from Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Tampa, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Washington DC, and of course from throughout the Gulf South region. In fact, actors have moved to Louisiana and found work as an actor based upon the information they learned at the Expo.

This year has brought big changes. Our title sponsors are Actors Access/Breakdown Services, the premier online casting system that facilitates the casting for 98 percent of the films produced in the U.S., and Back Stage, the premier actors trade publication. New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) is one of our local sponsors. We’ve also expanded to include all of the various aspects of the film industry, from writers to directors, and from editors to producers. And now it’s a two-day event. It’s the one time a year where everyone can get together and not only learn about and develop their craft, but also commune with their tribe, and it’s been incredible having a place where we can all speak our language and be understood.

We’re also a “we” now. After the 2011 Expo last September, I invited Lolita Burrell (who was honored as one of New Orleans CityBusiness Magazine’s Women of the Year) to join forces with me in producing the largest film industry conference in the Gulf South, the Louisiana Actors & Film Industry Expo. My boys have moved on from preschool, Nemo and Power Rangers. Now it’s RipStiks, BeyBlades and Man vs. Wild, and I need the Expo now as much as I needed the Sunday meetings with actors more than three years ago.

And from talking to the people who attend the event, most have the same feelings I do. They learn how to move forward in their careers so they can become who they want to be, but—and somehow I think this is more important—they feel empowered, uplifted and connected to members of their tribe.

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